In summary

Educators have been forced to become health care workers. California must create pandemic response teams and deploy them at public schools to manage the medical workload that is being left to teachers, principals, librarians and social workers.

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By Angella Martinez, Special to CalMatters

Angella Martinez is CEO of KIPP SoCal, which has 23 charter public schools in Southern California.

Each day my team arrives at work wondering how many potential COVID cases we’ll handle. Some members spend half their days conducting screening and contact tracing, while others spend hours triaging, determining who needs their attention the most. If you’re guessing I’m an administrator at a public health clinic, guess again. I’m a TK-8 public school educator. 

My job used to be making sure students were receiving a rigorous and joyful educational experience that would prepare them for college and beyond. That’s still my job. But the roughly 600,000 of us who work in public education in California now have a second job: health care professionals. 

We monitor virus mutations and respond swiftly to sudden surges of infections. We vigilantly enforce safety protocols, from proper mask-wearing to hand-washing to social distancing. We track down parents in the middle of the day to pick up children who might have been exposed to COVID. 

Educators are used to taking on extra responsibilities: We stay after school when a student needs us, we soothe hurt feelings, we talk every day with parents, siblings and caregivers. We train for all of this. But we are not trained health care workers. We are not fully equipped to be on the front lines of a persistent and unprecedented pandemic. 

Teams that were supposed to be assessing curriculum are being redeployed to analyze the latest guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On a recent day, after we identified 283 students at our Southern California campuses who needed to quarantine, our teachers rushed to gather the materials our kids needed to study from home. 

My team members come to me overwhelmed, overworked, unable to understand why local or state officials are not sending reinforcements. They want to know why the government is not providing schools with public health professionals who are poised to tackle the challenges posed by a highly infectious and life-threatening virus. What can I tell them? 

I can tell them that our public officials are preoccupied. I can remind them that Los Angeles’ mayor has one foot out the door on his way to India, where he will serve as U.S. ambassador. 

I can explain that Sacramento spent the last few months swept up in the needless drama of a $276 million gubernatorial recall election simply because 12% of recent voters wanted one.

I can tell them what they already know from experience: that despite the state’s liberal bluster, California has never been serious about equipping public schools with the resources we need.  

To its credit, the Biden administration has sent extra federal funding to help public schools cope with Covid. But we need expertise. The pandemic remains a medical emergency — one that wreaks disproportionate havoc on communities and people of color. Government should respond accordingly. 

Officials should equip each public school campus with a pandemic response team. The teams could consist of professionals with varying degrees of experience and certification; what’s important is to have more staff on hand with medical training. These trained health care professionals would manage the medical workload that is now being left to teachers, principals, librarians and social workers. They would advise and enforce safety protocols; manage COVID screenings and contact tracing; coordinate with the parents and guardians of students who need to quarantine at home; and share information about and perhaps even administer vaccinations.

With COVID management off of our plates, teachers and school administrators could devote our energy to what we’re best at: planning science lessons, helping our middle-schoolers choose which high school they’ll enroll in, counseling students in crisis, and so much more.  

By embedding strategic units of health care workers in our schools for the rest of the school year, officials would also limit the spread of this persistent virus. (School campuses are one of few places where the unvaccinated congregate.) 

Despite the frustration, the educators I know and work with are thrilled that schools have reopened. But each moment that one of us is instructing students to swab their noses, deposit the Q-tip in a vial and seal it in a bag is a moment when we’re not teaching them to read and write.  

Right now, educators are looking at another school year of conducting crisis management. It is not too late for public officials to send us the health care experts and coordinated support we need. 

If help never arrives, educators will figure it out. We always do. But it sure would be nice if the politicians who flatter us during campaign season would step up and treat this situation like the emergency that it is.

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